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Behind the Forecast: How the weather impacts Thanksgiving staples

Listen to Science Behind the Forecast with Meteorologist Tawana Andrew every Friday on 89.3 WFPL at 7:45 a.m.
Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 8:22 AM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Thanksgiving is right around the corner. A large part of Thanksgiving is the food, of course. Here’s how the weather can impact our Turkey Day staples.

Let’s start with the turkey. Wild turkeys live in every part of the United States, except for Alaska. The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) says that 55% to 60% of wild turkeys can survive a harsh winter and 70 to100% survive a mild or average winter. Those are great numbers when you consider that around 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving.

In the United States, cranberries are mainly farmed in New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin. They need to grow in special wetlands to thrive. They can only be grown in areas that see a maximum July daily average high temperature of 85°; that limits them to areas further north. The more sunshine cranberries get (especially in the fall and winter), the larger the berries at harvest time in September through November. A lack of rainfall before the plant enters dormancy, could lead to a lower yield the following year, according to the NEEF.

Most of the country’s pumpkins are grown in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Too much rain can delay planting and cause plants to rot. Mildew damages the plant’s leaves and stems; it can even kill pumpkin vines and fruits. While wet weather isn’t good for pumpkins, neither is very dry weather. Droughts can lead to smaller and lighter pumpkins. Well, chilly spring weather can keep pumpkin blossoms from maturing. Since bees don’t fly until temperatures reach at least 55°, they are not pollinating the flowers. Once temperatures fall from the fifties into the thirties, pumpkins plants will slow down, stunt, then stop growing and producing fruit. Pumpkins seeds don’t germinate in the cold ground while seedlings can be injured by frost, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Soil temperatures should be at least 65° for pumpkin planting according to the University of Minnesota Extension. The University of Illinois Extension says that pumpkins planted too early in the year can rot before Halloween. Hot and dry weather can cause pumpkins to produce too many male blossoms and not enough female blossoms, which can lead to a smaller harvest. The sun, while vital to a pumpkin’s growth, can damage a pumpkin plant. Leaves may wilt in temperatures warmer than the mid-80s.

Sweet potatoes grow well in warmer weather, that’s why they are mainly grown in Florida, California, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Frost damages the vines and roots of sweet potatoes and heavy rain keeps them from growing properly and causes them to split.

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